How did you get into cinematography?
My cousin, Christopher Baffa ASC, was studying super 8mm filmmaking in high school. Whenever we had family gatherings, he’d show me the cool projects he was working on. I was only about 7years old but it made a great impression. I talked my parents into getting me a camera and just started shooting little projects. We were very into war films – ala Rambo and Commando. I think I shot, stabbed or blew up about 90% of my good friends on camera at one point or another. If I didn’t blow you up – you probably weren’t a close friend. Chris is now the the director of photography on the fox show Glee and also shot Nip/Tuck as well as a handful of feature films (Suicide Kings is personal favorite). He does really beautiful work.
Did you have any formal education in it/how did you learn?
My parents were super supportive of my interest in filmmaking, so they enrolled me in classes at the Art Center of Pasadena for weekend workshops and summer classes. We also had an extremely advanced tv production class at my high school. So I was able to study editing, studio production and field production before I was even 18 years old. It was an R.O.P. class (regional occupational program). So you were learning a “working craft.” I wish more schools embraced programs like this. Students in our class are currently producers on Survivor, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, agents in Hollywood and cameramen. I think the program is super successful and it set me up to go to Loyola Marymount University were I received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film Production.
What attracted you to 16mm film?
Well, film is still the best image you can capture, not too many pros will argue with that. 16mm has been the mainstay of surf films for years, the older gear is fairly inexpensive and the grainy, home spun look of 16mm just works great with stories about traveling surfers. Especially for us, since my first film Singlefin: Yellow and the second One California Day, which I shot with Mark Jeremias, are both odes to the history of surfing and the history of surf films.
Are you still shooting 16mm or have you adopted digital technology?
Well, the quick answer is that I shoot both. But I have recently been shooting a lot of different digital formats for other people as a hired gun. It’s been a great learning process for me to see what’s out there and what I like the look of. There are a few things right now that I’m pretty excited about.
What are the pros and cons of each?
Film looks better but it is very expensive. I don’t think the average viewer understands that most “surf titles” don’t sell that many units. It’s just a fact. So, to be a profitable business you have to try and control your costs – and film is a huge cost.
The lower priced digital formats often don’t have as great a look (in my opinion) and thus connote cheap production value. I feel the audience / consumer and our story lines deserve the highest production value possible. So it is definitely a challenge.
On the up side, the old film gear is difficult to use and many things can go wrong quickly. With the newer hd cameras, you instantly know what you have and you can be editing as soon as you shoot it. That quick turn around is pretty unbelievable.
What kind of equipment are you using?
Our film gear is Bolex system, but I love the Arri sr2 & sr3 – They are just expensive units. I’ve shot REDone, Varicam, HVX and HVU for various jobs – the “tapeless” work flow is pretty cool. Most recently I’ve been playing around with DSLRs and I actually really like the look of them.
How did you get inspired to make surf films?
I love surfing and I love filmmaking – it’s nice to spend your time around things you love, it never feels like work.
What challenges do you face as an independent filmmaker?
Audiences are changing how they digest media on all levels, Hollywood feels it, the music industry has felt it and that trickles down to the action sports community of content producers. If people don’t want to buy the dvds or go see movies in the theatre, the producers can’t rely on that revenue to substantiate creating new projects.
How do you overcome them/what keeps you motivated?
I just love making films. I’m not happy when I’m not filmmaking, so, all the energy that goes into this stuff is truly just a selfish pursuit of doing what I love. We just need to be smart about leveraging marketing dollars to help offset production costs and also, stay very aware of what the market is asking for. It’s funny, you hear a lot about “branded content” these days. Essentially, entertainment that is supported by an advertiser and often includes their product or a reminder that their product made whatever you are watching. If ya think about it, the surf industry has been doing this for years, movies like The Rip Curl Search, Young Guns, even Dale Velzy helped pay for Bruce Brown’s early films, so that his boards could be highlighted in the project. We’ve been ahead of the branded content game for years! LOL
What advice do you have for the aspiring surf filmmaker?
It’s a very tough market right now so I think filmmakers really need to focus on their style, be unique, keep the quality really high and find new original ways to separate oneself. Brian Connelly shooting himself in the tube is a great example. It’s new and fresh and unique. I’d also say, earn your chops on the web. You have a worldwide audience to access and gain momentum. If you can build an audience for your work and then later release a project on dvd or for digital download purchase, you’ll be way ahead of the game. Having an audience is key.
You are also into drawing and painting – what are you working on there and how does it relate to your filmmaking?
A friend once told me, regarding athletics, that immobility perpetuates immobility. Meaning, if you can always keep moving, it’s easier to stay active- if the surf is flat, go paddle, go for a run, whatever. I think creativity is similar. Stay active, drawing and painting, writing, all of these things are great ways to flex creative muscles and stay sharp.
What can we expect to see from you in the near future?
I’ve been working on a really fun series of mini-documentaries with Chris Malloy for Patagonia. These short films are about people who do what the love for a living. It’s been super fun to collaborate with Chris and to take on material that more often than not, isn’t surf related. It’s just us with one camera and a subject and it kinda takes both of us back to what we first loved about making these movies. The simple act of having a camera and telling a story. These films should be on the Patagonia website starting this fall.
I’m also developing another feature film about surfing. It would be an evolution of sorts of the other two projects. I’m just working on the business plan and trying to secure financing – so maybe they’ll be something new in a year or so.
To check out more about Jason Baffa, check out his website at: www.jasonbaffafilms.com